Archive for the 'Songbirds' Category

Nov 05 2015


Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Starlings in monochrome (photo by Mr. T in DC, via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In Pittsburgh we don’t have sandpipers but in the winter we have something similar.  Can we call them “land-pipers?”

Click here for a Throw Back Thursday article from 2008 about our substitute for shorebirds: Land-pipers.


UPDATE:  Richard Nugent suggests they be called “lawn-pipers.”   Excellent name!

(photo by “Mr. T in DC”, via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Oct 27 2015

October (and November) Hummingbirds

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Rufous hummingbird, female, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Female rufous hummingbird, Carrolton, PA, 19 Oct 2015 (photo by Bob Mulvihill)

Do you still have red flowers in your garden?  Are your hummingbird feeders filled and hanging?  If so you might attract a rare bird.

Our ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have left for the tropics but a few hardy northwesterners visit Pennsylvania in the fall.  They’re the Selasphorus hummingbirds.

The most likely visitors are rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) that breed in the Pacific Northwest and as far north as Alaska.  They’re used to cool temperatures and not bothered by our weather as long as they find enough to eat.  During migration they range far and wide and often visit backyard feeders.

Solo birds can show up anywhere.  Last year Hannah Floyd found one inside Phipps Conservatory during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  Unseen when she entered Phipps through an open window, the bird spent a good part of the winter at the red powderpuff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) in the Stove Room.

Selasphorus hummingbirds are so rare in Pennsylvania that ornithologists work hard to band every one that’s found.  Usually they’re identified as rufous hummingbirds but the species is so similar to the even-rarer-in-Pennsylvania Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) that the bird usually has to be in hand to tell.

If you see a hummingbird in your garden at this point, it’s rare!  Call the National Aviary’s ornithologist Bob Mulvihill right away at 412-258-1148 (office) or 412-522-5729 (cell).  Or email him at He’ll stop by to capture and band it and you’ll get a chance to see it up close. He banded the female rufous pictured above in Carrolton, Pennsylvania on October 19.

To learn more about rare fall hummingbirds in western Pennsylvania, click here at the National Aviary’s website.


p.s. While you’re waiting for a rarity, watch hummingbirds spending the winter in West Texas on Cornell Lab’s West Texas Hummingbird Cam.

(photo by Bob Mulvihill)

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Oct 24 2015

Waiting For Snowbirds But Not For Snow

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Dark-eyed Junco, January 2014 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

In the normal progression of fall migration, October is when northern sparrows arrive in the Pittsburgh area.

I’ve already seen my first white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, but I haven’t seen a dark-eyed junco yet.

Some people call juncoes “snowbirds” because they arrive with the first snow.  Fortunately our juncoes get here before that happens.

I’m waiting for snowbirds, but not for snow.


(photo by Cris Hamilton)

UPDATE: First junco in my yard this fall appeared on Oct 29 after the rain. Then a pause and today (Oct 31) I have 2 juncoes.

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Oct 22 2015

Duck, Duck, Goose?

Published by under Songbirds

Duck, duck, goose

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

In the weeks ahead ducks and geese will migrate through Pennsylvania from the frozen north.

We intuitively separate ducks and geese into two classes of waterfowl — “This one’s a duck, that one’s a goose” — but how?

Three years ago I mused about this question and got a surprising answer when I asked “What’s the difference between a duck and a goose?”

Click here to find out.


(silhouette images: duck from Freedigitaldownloads, goose from Shutterstock)

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Oct 19 2015

Male Or Female?

Published by under Migration,Songbirds

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ruby-crowned kinglet, October 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

You can’t tell the difference between male and female ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) unless they’re upset.  Only males have the ruby crown that gave the bird its name but they hide it unless they’re agitated.

Fortunately for us, ruby-crowned kinglets are feisty and will raise their head feathers as a challenge to each other and just about anyone else.

Watch for them migrating through western Pennsylvania this month.

Steve Gosser photographed this one at Shenango Lake, Mercer County.


(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 30 2015

Pay Attention To What I Eat

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellowhammer, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the story of a great idea that went sour really fast because people didn’t observe bird behavior.

During the 1800’s many Britons emigrated to New Zealand and began farming. As the settlers cleared the forest, New Zealand’s native birds (which are flightless) retreated or became extinct.

Soon insect pests proliferated and the farmers clamored for a solution.  Someone had a bright idea, “I know! Birds eat bugs. Let’s import a bird.”

The Acclimatisation Societies decided to import the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), a sparrow-like Eurasian bird famous for his pretty song.  They lined up dealers in Britain who captured local yellowhammers and shipped them overseas.  New Zealand’s farmers welcomed them with open arms.

It didn’t take long to find out this was a terrible mistake.  The birds ate the crops, not the insects.

Look at his conical bill and you can tell the yellowhammer eats seeds all year long.  In fact, he only supplements his diet with insects during the breeding season.

Soon New Zealanders hated the yellowhammers.  In 1880, only 15 years after the first birds arrived, the last shipment was turned away and sent to Australia.  Farmers hunted, poisoned and raided yellowhammer nests, trying to rid the country of this once welcomed bird but it was too late.  Yellowhammers were firmly established in New Zealand and are widespread today.

They’d have saved a lot of trouble if someone had paid attention to what yellowhammers eat.

Read the full story here at Science Daily.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 29 2015

A Bird On The Hand

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Debbie Kalbfleisch hand feeds a black-capped chickadee (photo by Donna Foyle)

Early this month Debbie Kalbfleisch told us of a magical place loaded with migrating warblers where the chickadees eat out of your hand. The only rules were: Bring black sunflower seed, Never feed the chickadees near the road, Leave no seed behind (or they will learn to eat from the ground, not your hand).

Our birding email group, fittingly called “The Chickadees,” could not resist these enticements so Debbie led us there last Saturday.  Above, she demonstrates that it really works.

Naturally the rest of us had to try.  Below, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and I hold out our hands while Donna Foyle takes our picture.

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

Hand feeding wild chickadees, Barb Griffith, Ramona Sahni and Kate St. John (photo by Donna Foyle)

As the chickadees became accustomed to our large group of 12 they came to our hands more often, taking turns and flying off to cache the seeds.

Then the warblers showed up.  (I’d forgotten that migrating warblers forage near chickadees.)  We put the seed in our pockets and raised our binoculars but the chickadees followed, still expecting to eat.  Fortunately one of us always had a hand out.

I missed a few warblers because I love the chickadees so much.

He's on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)

He’s on my hand! (photo by Donna Foyle)


You can train your own backyard chickadees to eat from your hand.  All it takes is cold weather and a lot of patience.  Here’s how –> Seeing Eye To Eye With Birds

Balck-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)

Black-capped chickadee takes a peanut from my hand (photo by Donna Foyle)


A bird on the hand is worth two in the bush.


(photos by Donna Foyle)

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Sep 02 2015

No Feet

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Hummingbird foot, in bander's hand (photo by Kate St. John)

Leg and foot of ruby-throated hummingbird in bander’s hand (photo by Kate St. John, bander Bob Mulvihill)

Here’s the leg of a ruby-throated hummingbird, so short that the toes make up nearly half its length.

Look closely and you’ll see the foot resembles a garden claw.

Garden claw tool (illustration from

Garden claw (illustration from


This group of birds also has tiny feet shaped like garden claws.

White-throated swifts (Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

White-throated swifts (Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)


Once you know their feet are similar, it’s not a big leap to realize that these birds are related.

Swifts (Apodidae) and hummingbirds (Trochilidae) are in the same the taxonomic order Apodiformes, a Greek word that means “A”=no, “pod”=foot.

“No feet.”  🙂


p.s. Click here to read more about the similarities between hummingbirds and swifts.

(hummingbird photo by Kate St. John, garden claw clip art from, white-throated swifts illustration from the Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds, Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Sep 01 2015

Strong Opening

Published by under Bird Anatomy,Songbirds

Immature blue-winged warbler shows beak-opening strength at Neighborhood Nestwatch banding (photo by Kate St. John)

Immature blue-winged warbler shows its strong opening muscles, in bander’s hand (photo by Kate St. John, bander Bob Mulvihill)

With songbird migration underway, here’s something to think about when you see a blue-winged, golden-winged, Tennessee, orange-crowned, or Nashville warbler:  Their beaks make a strong opening.

Back in July at Cunkelman’s Neighborhood Nest Watch banding, Bob Mulvihill’s mist nests captured an immature blue-winged warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera).  With the bird in hand he put his fingers lightly on the bird’s beak and it immediately opened its beak and pushed Bob’s fingers away.  What an unusual talent!  These warblers have extremely strong gaping muscles.

Golden-winged warblers, closely related to blue-wings, are so well studied that this fact is mentioned in the literature about them.  Bob has also found it to be true of the (formerly*) Vermivora warblers and oriole species he’s banded in eastern North America.

Why this unusual talent?  Vermivora literally means “worm eater” — vermi:worm, vora:eat.  The “worms” are small caterpillars (not earthworms) that hide among leaves, often wrapped in cocoons or in curled up leaves.  The warblers open the rolled leaves against the caterpillars’ will.

When you see these talented birds watch them probing among the leaves.  They’re making a strong opening.


(photo by Kate St. John)
And what’s all this about formerly(*)?
The genus Vermivora used to contain nine species including Tennessee, orange-crowned, Nashville, Virginia’s, Colima and Lucy’s warblers, but in 2010 the American Ornithological Union transferred all but Bachman’s (extinct), blue-winged and golden-winged to the genus Oreothlypis.  After years of having nine Vermivoras, it’s hard to keep up with the changes.

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Aug 06 2015

Save Time: Reuse, Recycle

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Last week, Karyn Delaney reported a northern cardinal using an old robin’s nest outside her window and we joked in email that the mother took this shortcut because it’s so late in the breeding season.

Cardinals rarely reuse nests but some songbirds do.  On Monday Donna Memon and I found a Cordillean flycatcher at her(*) nest at the summit of Mount Lemmon.  Because her nestlings were too tiny to see and the nest edges and “launch pad” had fecal evidence of active fledglings, we surmised she was reusing the nest.

Birds of North America Online (BNA) reports that Cordillerans in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona — the location of Mount Lemmon — build a “cup of moss, sometimes mixed with bark strips or rootlets, [and] lined with fine grass or rootlets.” Cordillerans often reuse nests, sometimes in the same location for 20 years.  Perhaps this nest has been recycled many times because it’s much sloppier than a simple cup.

In the next three photos the flycatcher feeds and watches her tiny nestlings but she has to hurry because …

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

… this is a late nesting.  Winter comes early to Mount Lemmon and Cordilleran migration begins in mid-August so she’ll have to hurry.

It looks like she’s already saved time by reusing the nest.


(*) A NOTE ABOUT “Cordilleran and “she”:  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify but the Cordilleran flycatcher is the Empid species that nests on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a sky island in southeastern Arizona.  The Cordilleran’s look-alike relative, the Pacific slope flycatcher, is a low elevation bird. Also, for convenience I’ve called this bird a “she” but the males help feed the nestlings so we may have been watching a “he.”  On the subject of “he/she” I am borrowing my husband’s Poetic License.  😉


(photos by Donna Memon)

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